“How do I just stand up and walk away and leave him here?” the mother asked emergency department nurse Laurielynn Hinman.

The mother’s teenage son had died after being hit by a vehicle, and she sat at his bedside in the Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital.

Hinman, a young nurse at the time, compassionately said, “I don’t know how you do that, but you don’t have to until you’re ready.”

Decades later, Hinman recalls how that incident helped shape her outlook in providing empathetic care to patients.

“That was so impactful for me,” Hinman said. “Unless you’ve been through it, you don’t have a clue about what people are experiencing. It was a great lesson for me to learn.”

Hinman, along with fellow Ludington Hospital nurses Clara Whitaker and Sally Wright, have all served more than 40 years at the hospital, the bulk of it in the emergency department together.

They all cite a love of helping patients and showing compassion as the driving motivation and source of joy in their nursing careers.

Candy striper to seasoned veteran

Hinman is planning to retire in October after a 45-year career. She’s looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren. No. 4 is on the way.

The Royal Oak, Michigan, native began working in health care as a high school student, serving as a hospital volunteer, or candy striper as they were called at the time for their novelty red-and-white striped aprons.

After high school, Hinman worked as a nurse aide in Florida for a year before returning to Michigan to start her college career. She received her nursing certification from Kirtland Community College in 1975 and began work in the labor and delivery unit of a Detroit-area hospital.

She moved to Ludington in 1979 and began work at the Ludington hospital. She’s worked the past 32 years in the emergency department, while earning an associate degree in nursing from West Shore Community College and a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Ferris State University.

Hinman has relished working with patients over the years.

“It’s a great honor that you can be with them during some of the greatest times of their life, and some of the hardest times and that’s an honor that our patients give us that I think sometimes we forget,” Hinman said. “That’s been my biggest joy.”

And in working in a small town, she values providing care for friends and neighbors.

“That’s one of the joys of working in a community like ours; you know your patients and you become a part of their lives,” she said. “It’s a comfort for them. I think there’s a lot of advantages to being in a small community like this.”

A key to providing that comfort, that compassionate care, is to remain empathetic even when part of the job becomes old hat.

“One of the hardest things is that the emergency room is everyday life for us,” she said. “But it’s not for them and we have to remember that.”

“It’s been a very rewarding 45 years,” she said. “I’ve gotten back a whole lot more than I’ve given. I’m very thankful for that.”

She said the people she’s worked with have made the job rewarding.

“Clara, Sally and I should give a shout out to all the people who have helped us through the years, as we couldn’t have done it without all of them.”

Paying it forward

Sally Wright agrees.

“I’m thankful for the mentors that I had,” she said. “For over 40 years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some phenomenal people.”

She called out Linford Davis, MD, as someone who inspired her in her early years as a nurse.

“He had a great influence on me,” she said. “He was always teaching. I loved that, and I was always picking his brain.”

“I credit a lot of what I’ve done and accomplished to people that have paved that way for me and taught me, and it feels like it’s my turn to pass that on to other people.”

Wright grew up locally, just down the road from Ludington in nearby Scottville.

She recently marked 40 years of working at Ludington Hospital.

She attended Spring Arbor College in Jackson after high school and, between her freshman and sophomore year, still felt undecided on her career choice.

While home for the summer, a friend’s mother, who headed the Ludington Hospital emergency department, invited her to work as nurse tech to see if it would be something she’d like.

“I loved it,” Wright said. “I just fell in love with it.”

With renewed focus, she started taking nursing classes, completing prerequisite classes at Spring Arbor before getting her associate degree in nursing from Jackson Community College and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Spring Arbor.

She would work summers and holidays at the hospital. After college, she worked in the critical care unit for a year until a position opened in the emergency department. She’s been in the ED ever since.

“I love the pace of the ED,” she said. “I love the variety of the ED— no two days are ever the same.”

She would add a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Grand Valley State University and a teaching degree from Ferris State University, the latter to fulfill a calling to teach and help other students find their way— just as the hospital leader helped her long ago.

For the past 21 years, she has been teaching for the West Shore Educational Service District while working part time at the hospital.

She teaches allied health for high school students who are considering going into health care. She teaches nurse aide certification, an EKG technician certification program and basic life support.

“I have this combined love of nursing and teaching and it’s been a great career,” Wright said.

“That’s why I’m so passionate about helping students to see if it’s something they want, because somebody gave me a chance,” she said.

As a nurse, Wright believes strongly in being a patient advocate.

“That’s the most rewarding for me,” she said. “When you’re truly there for the patient and the family.”

Wright said she tries to keep the golden rule in mind.

“People need help,” she said. “That’s been my passion—be there for the patient, treat them like I’d want to be treated and treat their family like I’d want my family treated. Sometimes it’s just that little extra, like offering a family member a cup a coffee.”

“Nobody is really at their best when they come to the emergency department,” she said. “They’re scared, and they react out of fear and worry. Think about what they’re going though.”

Wright is considering retiring from teaching in the next couple of years, but said she wants to keep nursing until she “retires, retires.”

Following family footsteps

Clara Whitaker also points to helping patients as the part of her job she’s enjoyed the most.

“You help them feel better, you keep them safe, you see the improvement and you see them feeling better,” she said. “I think that’s the most fulfilling part.”

Whitaker, who is from Ludington, started as a nurse aide at just 16 at the former Baywood Nursing Home as part of a co-op program in high school.

She began working summers and weekends at Ludington Hospital in 1977 as a nurse aide, while getting her nursing degree. She graduated from the Hackley School of Nursing in Muskegon in 1979.

Her mother, Caroline Majewski, also worked as a nurse at Ludington Hospital and she inspired Whitaker to join the ranks. Mom worked nights, daughter days.

“As an aide, I used to take report for my mother in the morning,” Whitaker said laughing.

Whitaker said she knew as a senior in high school that nursing was her calling.

“I figured out that I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I liked helping the patients.”

After graduation, she worked in the surgery department for a year, and then transferred to the ED, where she’s now nursed for the past 43 years.

And she still enjoys it.

“It’s always changing,” she said. “The patients are constantly rotating, and you’re taking care of everything in the realm of medicine. You take care of little minor injuries and very ill people, and every one is a new challenge.”

Whitaker says she plans to retire in the next couple of years.

“It’s hard, it’s fast-paced and you’re on your feet a lot—and I’m getting older,” she said laughing.

“I’ve truly enjoyed it,” she said. “There’s stressful times and there’s times when you think ‘I’m not going back’ but you do, because you do enjoy it.”

The trio have seen dramatic changes in nursing over the years.

They said advances in technology and the use of personal protective equipment have been major changes in the profession. It wasn’t until HIV became prevalent that they even wore gloves.

“We didn’t wear gloves to start an IV,” Wright said. “We’d have a trauma and if they were bleeding we’d put our hands in there—the bloodier you got, the more you worked that day,” she said. “We didn’t understand all the bloodborne pathogens that caused disease.”

Hinman said there’s been increased accountability for nurses, too.

“Instead of working for the doctors, now we work with the doctors; it’s more of a team effort,” she said. “We can make more decisions and assessments.”

Whitaker said staying current with advances and changes in medicine is a never-ending challenge.

“There is always so much new—new equipment, new education, new protocols and procedures,” Hinman said. “They come so fast it can be hard to keep up.”

The three nurses have kept up, and developed a special bond through the years.

“Laurie, Sally and I have been down in the ER the entire time together; it’s been great working with them,” Whitaker said. “They’re very dear friends.”

With the end of their respective careers in sight, they each said they’d pick nursing as career all over again.

“It isn’t for everyone, but if you have a passion to help people, it’s a great career,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t consider anything else if I was 19 again.”